TAI NATIONAL PARK, Ivory Coast (AP) — Before dawn in the thick rainforest of western Ivory Coast, the air was filled with the sounds of male chimpanzees screaming, hooting and banging on trees.
A baby chimpanzee named Dali slowly stretched out his brown, furry arms and clumsily scrambled from a branch 20 meters (65 feet) high for a breakfast of nuts and insects provided by game rangers. In the next few minutes he would be joined by 15 others who soon clambered off into the depths of Tai National Park.
Chimpanzees normally resent humans, but scientists in the park have spent decades "habituating" them so they could be studied. Two years ago, a Disney film got up close for the Tim Allen-narrated "Chimpanzee," which was set in Tai park.
Now, conservationists and the Ivorian government hope to take advantage of the fact that chimps in Tai park are relatively comfortable around humans by launching eco-tourism projects designed to stem the chimpanzee population's precipitous decline.
"Through ecotourism, local people gain something. They see the value of the forest ... and they will preserve it," said Christophe Boesch, director of West Africa's Wild Chimpanzee Foundation who has spent 35 years studying Ivory Coast's chimps.
"The more tourists we have, the more likely we will be able to win the battle," he said.
Once a thriving population, chimpanzees in Ivory Coast have experienced a 90 percent decline in the last two decades, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature, which estimates the global chimpanzee population is between 150,000 and 200,000.
The last in-depth study, conducted by Boesch's organization in 2008, said Ivory Coast's chimpanzee population now is between 8,000 and 12,000. Though no new studies have since been conducted and chimpanzees are difficult to track, Boesch said he was convinced the drop has continued.
One of the biggest factors hurting chimpanzees in Ivory Coast has been environmental degradation — a problem that was exacerbated when the country's 2010-11 postelection violence which killed more than 3,000 people. Tai National Park is located in the western region, which saw some of the conflict's worst fighting. Boesch said six habituated chimpanzees were killed, probably by poachers.
Long before the violence, however, humans were encroaching on the chimps' home. Boesch said that when he first approached the park on a drive in 1979 he encountered 100 kilometers of uninterrupted greenery. "We saw elephants and chimpanzees crossing," he said.
Now, cocoa fields have replaced the dense vegetation at the edge of the park, showing how migrants from Ivory Coast and other West African countries have reduced the environment where the country's wildlife can roam, he said.